Using our strong points as Irish people to sell the country abroad need not be an embarrassing case of financial shillelaghism.
Driving through east Cork to Youghal from Kent Station in Cork city, it is impossible to ignore the history and tradition of this part of the country.
The rich agricultural soil made east Cork a prize for almost all the invaders who have come through the country over the years, from the Vikings, Anglo-Normans and the Elizabethan settlers, right up to today’s Polish workers.
Demographically, east Cork is like a quilt, with Gael, Norman and English living side by side. What other part of the country could have produced, from villages within four miles of each other, residents as different as William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, and sportsman Christy Ring?
Edmund Spenser wrote what is commonly referred to as an English epic, The Faerie Queen – the homage to Elizabeth I – not in Surrey or in Hampshire, but in Youghal. It was also here that Walter Raleigh planted the first potato in Europe, in his garden at Myrtle Grove, just outside Youghal.
The Old Jameson Distillery in Midleton is a great example of the living history of the region. The distillery was originally a British barracks constructed just before the 1798 landing of French forces in Killala.
The British feared a greater French invasion and, reeling from the 1798 rebellion, the Crown moved to fortify its strategic bases in Ireland. This led to an explosion in military building, most notable now in the guise of the Martello towers dotted around the Irish coast.
Around that time, the headquarters of the British navy in Ireland was moved from the more exposed Kinsale to the recently constructed Cobh Harbour. Cobh became one of the most important naval bases for the British navy, and it was from here that the British orchestrated their naval blockade of France throughout the Napoleonic Wars.
The barracks in Midleton was built on the Owennacurra River, which connected it with the navy base at Cobh, where the river flows into the Atlantic. In two decades, the barracks quadrupled in size, housing mainly yeomen from the surrounding towns and villages.
What attracted all these people to the region was the well-irrigated agricultural land, famous for its rich barley yields. Ironically, it was the Cork militia, originally stationed at the centre of east Cork barley country, which inspired the song, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (used by Ken Loach in his recent film).Traditionally, rebels used to take pocketfuls of barley oats with them for food when they headed for the hills.
The song celebrated the massacre of the Cork militia by rebels at the battle of Oulart Hill in 1798.
When peace returned to the region after the rout of the United Irishmen, it probably wasn’t too surprising to learn that the barracks in a town which was home to the two essential ingredients for whiskey – barley and freshwater – was turned into a whiskey distillery by a man named Hackett in 1827.
Later, in 1856, it was bought by the enterprising Murphy Bros who wanted to move their distillery out of Cork because they needed a fast-flowing, clean river to expand their distillery business. This was the family that created Murphy’s stout. In 1860, James J Murphy whiskey made its first appearance and, years later, the distillery was bought by Jameson, and Jameson has been distilled there ever since.
The reason all this history is relevant is that, in the year ahead, tradition, lineage and nostalgia will become important selling points for many Irish products.
Fast forward to today and our world of global brands and marketing, and we see that what Jameson has going for it is this tradition. Jameson is Ireland’s leading whiskey brand and its market share is growing.
Its main growth areas are South Africa and the US, and in the US, the whiskey market is changing rapidly. Jameson is making inroads into the 25-35 age group which is not traditionally a whiskey-drinking market. The reach of its brand is quite phenomenal.
For example, recently I was in Montevideo in Uruguay – probably as far from this country as you can get. Yet in most bars, Jameson ads were prominent. Granted, Uruguayans drink more whiskey per head than any other Latin Americans, but the conspicuousness of Jameson was notable. As well as it own tradition, Jameson was trading on the Irish brand.
In the years ahead, as our economy weans itself off this property silliness that infected us for the past five years and deals with the possible scaling down of a multinational presence (which is likely to migrate gradually to cheaper locations), Irish brands will become more important.
The essence of a brand is almost impossible to quantify. However, we are one of the few countries that seems to have cultivated a brand. In the future, this will be essential.
The other night, Liam Casey, winner of the Irish Entrepreneur of the Year award, spoke about the fact that the Irish were well-liked abroad. He said that, even in China, this factor counted enormously in business, whether it was making the initial connection or sealing the deal.
So what is it that we are known for? The Irish brand seems to stand for conviviality, hospitality, good fun, good talking and irreverence, disobedience and curiosity. The Irish brand signifies good booze, food, chat and general accessibility. It is a soft, comforting image in contrast to, let’s say, the sharper brand that is the German image for technical proficiency and industrial quality.
The most recent IDA ad for the country focuses on this brand-Ireland idea. Instead of a list of statistics about competitive indicators such as productivity, costs, output and profit margins, it simply has a portrait of Bono by Louis Le Brocquy under the caption, The Irish Mind. The idea is that, while they might not be the cheapest people around, the Irish will do their thinking for you.
Whether this is accurate or not, it is delving deeper into a less economic and more personal selling point. It is selling a country that has become the sum of its history, where the traditions of the old Ireland are fused with the demands of the new Ireland.
It is piggybacking on the international image of Ireland and the Irish as an eclectic tribe – something that has been cultivated over the years. We can argue over the merits of this (as far as many are concerned, this is little more than financial shillelaghism) but the point is, the brand is there.
As we enter a more turbulent period, with the dollar falling, our old economic blueprint looking slightly shabby, and increased competition from Asia, we would be well advised to refocus on what our core brand is. In the years ahead, things like tradition, competence and uniqueness might be the only permanent selling points we have.